Guest Blog: The Finest and the Third Worst – Aesthetics and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

By Nicholas Joll

The Hitchhiker books by Douglas Adams are interesting literature. At any rate, they are interesting books. One way in which they are interesting is this: they raise the question of what literature, and art in general, is in the first place. This short(ish), three-part essay uses Hitchhiker’s to consider such questions – those questions being, as I shall explain, questions of aesthetics.


I begin by presenting two pieces of Hitchhiker material. The first owes to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy itself, which is to say, to the first Hitchhiker book, and concerns Vogon poetry. The second piece of material also concerns poetry but occurs in the third Hitchhiker book, namely, Life, the Universe and Everything.

According to Adams in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Vogon poetry is ‘the third worst in the Universe’. We come across that poetry in the form of a ‘fetid little passage’ composed by the captain of a Vogon spaceship. Here it is:

‘Oh freddled gruntbuggly

Thy micturations are to me

As plurdled gabbleblotchits on a lurgid bee.

Groop I implore thee, my foonting turlingdromes

And hooptiously drangle me with crinkly bindlewurdles,

Or I will rend thee in the gobberwarts with my blurglecruncheon, see if I don’t!’[1]

It is worth noting that the poem has a captive audience in the form of Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect, who are prisoners of the Vogons – and have been strapped into ‘Poetry Appreciation Chairs’. Indeed, they have been connected to ‘a battery of electronic equipment – imagery intensifiers, rhythmic modulators, alliterative residulators and simile dumpers – all designed to heighten the experience of the poem.’ Once they have recovered from the recital (‘“Aaaaaaarggggghhhhhh!” went Ford Prefect’), Arthur and Ford have the task of trying to save themselves by praising the poem. They gabble about ‘interesting rhythmic devices’, ‘the surrealism of the underlying metaphor’ and the poem’s attempt ‘to sublimate this, transcend that, and come to terms with the fundamental dichotomies of the other.’[2]

Life, the Universe and Everything gives poetry a better press. It tells of the poet Lallafa, who ‘wrote what are widely regarded throughout the Galaxy as being the finest poems in existence, the Songs of the Long Land.’ The poems are ‘unspeakably wonderful’.

‘That is to say, you couldn’t speak very much of them at once without being so overcome with emotion, truth and a sense of wholeness and oneness of things that you wouldn’t pretty soon need a brisk walk round the block, possibly pausing at a bar on the way back for a quick glass of perspective and soda. They were that good.’

Dont panic

Adams continues as follows.

‘Lallafa had lived in the forests of the Long Lands of Effa. He lived there, and he wrote his poems there. He wrote them on pages made of dried habra leaves, without the benefit of education or correcting fluid. He wrote about the light in the forest and what he thought about that. He wrote about the darkness in the forest, and what he thought about that. He wrote about the girl who had left him and precisely what he thought about that.

‘Long after his death his poems were found and wondered over. News of them spread like morning sunlight. For centuries they illuminated and watered the lives of many people whose lives might otherwise have been darker and drier.’

There is more, though.

‘Then, shortly after the invention of time travel, some major correcting fluid manufacturers wondered whether his poems might have been better still if he had had access to some high-quality correcting fluid, and whether he might be persuaded to say a few words on that effect.


‘They travelled the time waves, they found him, they explained the situation – with some difficulty – to him, and did indeed persuade him. In fact they persuaded him to such an effect that he became extremely rich at their hands, and the girl about whom he was otherwise destined to write which such precision never got around to leaving him, and in fact they moved out of the forest to a rather nice pad in town and he frequently commuted to the future to do chat shows, on which he sparkled wittily.

He never got around to writing the poems, of course, which was a problem, but an easily solved one. The manufacturers of correcting fluid simply packed him off for a week somewhere with a copy of a later edition of his book and a stack of dried habra leaves to copy them out on to, making the odd deliberate mistake and correction on the way.’

Adams continues: ‘Many people now say that the poems are suddenly worthless. Others argue that they are exactly the same as they always were, so what’s changed? The first people say that that isn’t the point. They aren’t quite sure what the point is, but they are quite sure that that isn’t it.’

These two extracts – the captain’s poem and the Lallafa material – raise questions that would not occur to a Vogon. Those questions are philosophical, and more specifically, aesthetical, aesthetics being the branch of philosophy that investigates art and beauty and related matters. One of the questions (or groups of questions) is about the nature of art. Just what is art? Can, say, a pile of boxes, or an unmade bed, or a monochrome canvas, be art? If there are indeed limits to what can be art, what are those limits and what sets them? Another issue concerns the value of art. What is it for an artwork to be good? Can a work of art be better or worse than some other? How, and why, does authenticity affect value? Or might it be that value of art is wholly subjective? These are the matters that, with some continuing reference to Hitchhiker’s, I consider in what follows.[3]


I start with the nature of art. That question – sometimes put as the question of the essence, or definition, or art – has received various answers. Here are three of the more traditional ones.

(i) According to the view that has become known as representationalism, art is . . representation, or more specifically (in the classic version of the theory, anyway) imitation. Prominent proponents of the theory include Plato (427–347 BCE), Aristotle (384–322 BCE), and Charles Batteux (1713–1780). Here is how Batteux presented the view:

‘We will define painting, sculpture, and dance as the imitation of beautiful nature conveyed through colours, through relief [i.e. shape], and through attitudes [i.e. bearing, comportment]. And music and poetry are the imitation of beautiful nature conveyed through sounds, or through measured discourse [i.e. language that has a metre, a rhythm].’

One of the Hitchhiker books sums matters up: ‘The function of art is to hold the mirror up to nature’. However, the theory can be modified so as to speak not of imitation but of representation. The rationale for this different version of the theory is this: some art, although it represents things, does not quite imitate – i.e. look like or sound like – what it represents. Here are some examples: prose; some poetry (despite what Batteux says); and symbolic visual art such as various works of Christian painting or pictures by Salvador Dalí.[4]

(ii) Expressivism defines art as the expression of emotion. Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910), novelist and thinker, was of this stripe. Here is his definition of art. ‘Art is a human activity, consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings, and also experience them.’ By ‘external signs’, Tolstoy tells us, he means ‘movements, lines, colours, sounds, or forms expressed in words’.[5] R. G. Collingwood (1889–1943) held a similar view, although he concentrates upon the artist and the work rather than the audience. ‘By creating for ourselves an imaginary experience or activity’, he wrote, ‘we express our emotions; and this is what we call art.’[6]

(iii) Formalism is the view that art is such because of its form. Just which form confers art-status varies from one formalist to another. According to Francis Hutcheson (1694–1746), a beautiful thing, whether natural or artificial, ‘displays unity (or uniformity) amidst variety’. ‘If a work has too much uniformity it is simply boring. If it has too much variety it is a jumble.’ We may compare Immanuel Kant (1724–1804). Kant held that art necessarily contains patterns – ‘shapes, regularities, symmetries, contrasts’ – that ‘appeal to our understanding’. Often such patterns have a temporal dimension, ‘as in the case of the successive notes in the melody or chord changes in a piece of music, the succession of words in a poem, or the composition of a painting when we survey its parts successively and then come to grasp it as a whole.’ Another formalist, Clive Bell (1881–1964), defined art as ‘significant form’. Form, for Bell, is a matter of ‘combination of lines and colours’ (visual art), or rhythm and harmony (music), or ‘narrative structures and alternative points of view’ (literature). Bell deems such form significant to the degree that it can produce the ecstatic, other-worldly feeling that he calls ‘aesthetic emotion’.[7]

The examples we drew from Hitchhiker’s give each of the three theories some plausibility. The poetry of both Lallafa and the Vogon represent things (even if they might not exactly imitate them): the light and darkness of the forest, plurdled gabbleblotchits and a lurgid bee. Also, both pieces of poetry are expressive. Lallafa conveys how he feels about the woman who left him, the Vogon poem implores and threatens; and, indeed, in each case the audience is affected strongly. Further yet, one need not be connected to a ‘rhythmic modulator’ to see that form, at least in the guise of rhyme, is responsible for some of the effect of the captain’s ditty. One presumes, also, that rhyme, metre, structure and the like contribute to the unspeakable wonder of Lallafa’s poems.

The situation is similar in the real, non-Hitchhiker, world. Here too, that is, one can supply each theory with cases that seem to suit. In fact, and as with the Hitchhiker cases, various artworks seem to suit all three of the theories. Take Notes from Underground by Dostoyevsky. That novel represents a life and a world. It expresses the emotions of its main character and perhaps of its author. It has a salient form, in that it starts as a monologue but becomes more of a story (albeit narrated in the first-person), subdivides in various ways, uses humour in certain ways, et cetera. That form might not be one that would satisfy all or any of Hutcheson, Kant, and Bell. But still. And surely similar points apply to many highly regarded works.

That representationalism, expressivism, and formalism all have something going for them is not as happy as it might seem. It is not drinks all round. Here is why. It is true that, for instance, an expressivist can accept that art represents things and/or that form matters to art. She or he could even admit that, were an artwork to represent nothing and/or to lack a certain form, it could not express emotion. Where the expressivist digs in, and opposes the other theories, is by insisting that it is expression, and only that, which makes an artwork art. The property of expressing emotion is the art-making feature, as it were. Similarly, the formalist holds that the possession of a certain form is the crucial thing. Each of the three theories claims to have identified the sole feature the possession of which makes something art. Hence the theories are mutually incompatible.

How then can we decide between definitions of art? Not simply by accumulating examples. As seen, more than one theory can do this; and some examples serve several theories. Perhaps then counter-examples are the thing. Could one destroy a definition by finding a work of art that lacks the allegedly art-making feature? To illustrate: one could object to representationalism on the basis that much art, including abstract painting and a great deal of music, contains little or no representation. This type of an attack can be parried, though – and in more than one way.

One type of riposte is to deny the characterisation of the alleged counter-example. Thus, a representationalist could try to show that in fact allegedly non-representational art is representational. One might claim that music imitates natural sounds such as birdsong or the human voice.[8] Here is a different type of defence. Suppose I am an expressivist and you contest my theory by saying that Fountain by Marcel Duchamp expresses no emotion. I can reply: my theory need not and should not accommodate Fountain because that piece – a urinal, albeit one that resembled a drinking fountain – is not art. Now it is true that there are some works that nearly everybody deems art. Examples are paintings by the Old Masters, Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets, and the novels of Thomas Hardy. Perhaps then an adequate theory of art must accommodate at least those works. However, the undisputed works are few. It is not just that some pieces, such as Fountain and Tracy Emin’s My Bed and Cage’s 4’33”, are (or at least were) highly controversial. Some people have denied that the works of Jane Austin are proper novels. Some contemporary artists deny that figurative (i.e. non-abstract) painting, when produced today, is really art – whereas the ‘Stuckist’ movement asserts the opposite!

These difficulties are one reason that alternatives to the traditional theories have emerged. One of these newer approaches simply denies that art can or should be defined. Away with all definitions! A less radical alternative pursues a more relaxed type of definition. The idea here is that there is no single art-making feature but instead various features that, in some combination or combinations, suffice for arthood. The features on such a list can include being expressive of emotion, having certain formal properties (balance or coherence, say) and being a representation, but, also, such features as being original, conveying insight, and being intellectually stimulating. There are also historical definitions, which claim that an entity is a work of art if it is sufficiently similar to established or paradigmatic artworks. The institutional theory is more accommodating yet. It holds (although I simplify) that a piece is art so long as it has been placed in a gallery or discussed within the artworld.[9]

The foregoing approaches have their critics. For instance, the institutional theory has been charged with implying what is thought to be an absurdity, namely, that absolutely anything can be turned into art. Some people think that, in practice, this has already happened.[10]


I turn now, as planned but fairly briefly, to the value of art. I preface my treatment of that topic with a further bit of Adams.

‘The thing thrashed to the shore and struggled up the bank. [. . . .]

“I instinctively feel”, said the creature, urgently, “that I need to be beautiful. Am I?”

“You’re pretty direct, aren’t you?”

“No point in mucking about. Am I?”

The thing was oozing all over the place now, squelching and blubbering. [. .]

“To me?” said Ford. “No. But listen [. . .]”‘

(So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish, chapter 23)

Most aestheticians believe that, at least in many cases, beauty is relevant to the value of an artwork. Indeed many would go further. Consider Batteux. We saw that Batteux defined art as the imitation of beautiful nature. That view makes it natural for him to say (and he does say) that judging whether an artwork is good is all about beauty. Still, I am interested less in the idea that beauty is a criterion of an artwork’s value and more in the type of general move that Batteux is making. He is moving from a view of the nature of art to a view of art’s value. Clive Bell – who, as it happens, has many reservations about identifying art with beauty – makes that same general type of move. He holds that an artwork is good to the degree that it has the ‘significant form’ whereby it is art in the first place. Tolstoy affords a further example, this time from the expressivist camp. Here, though, we will encounter a complication that takes us into new territory.

Tolstoy did use his conception of the nature of art – viz., it is an expression of emotion – as a criterion of artistic merit. However, he claims that whether or not something is art (or at least whether or not it is good art), depends on the quality of feelings expressed. Let me explain. Tolstoy argued that the art of the upper classes expresses pride, sexual desire, and discontent with life, and that consequently it is bad art (or, he seems to say sometimes, not art at all). Peasant art is different. It is (often) good art. It is good art because it expresses admirable sentiments, namely ‘the brotherhood of man’ or ‘the simple feelings of common life, accessible to everyone without exception, such as the feeling of merriment, of pity, of cheerfulness, of tranquillity’. This idea that moral considerations affect artistic value has had many adherents but also many detractors. Oscar Wilde (whom Tolstoy attacks) was one opponent of the view. In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey, Wilde declared: ‘There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.’ Art is to be judged as art, not by some external standard such as morality. Or, in a slogan (a slogan with which Wilde was associated): ‘Art for art’s sake’.[11]

Do we value art for its own sake, though? Surely we value art at least partly because it does such things as stimulate, thrill, delight, comfort, and enlighten; and one might think that this entails that we do not value art for itself but instead for the effects it has upon us. Indeed, such effects seem to be a moral matter, in this way: other things being equal, it is a good thing for people to be stimulated, comforted, enlightened, et cetera. In that spirit, Bell claims that ‘all art is moral’. His argument is that the ‘aesthetic’ emotion occasioned by significant form is ‘one of the most valuable things in the world’. But perhaps Wilde would agree; Bell’s thought is that art has moral value because it has artistic merit, and not, as Tolstoy has it, the other way around.[12]

The idea that we value art for its effects raises the ‘big, obvious question about aesthetic value’. Is such value ‘ever “really in” the objects it is attributed to’?[13] Actually, the effects idea suggests an answer to that question, that answer being: ‘No, the value lies in us’. As the old saying has it, ‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Compare the Adams passage! ‘[Beautiful] To me? No. But listen . .’ Now, if beauty really is in the eye of the beholder (and I am not asserting that it is), then there are (would be) consequences. To wit, and as another old saying has it: there is no disputing about taste. That is: to claim that some particular work is good, or better or worse than some other – i.e. to try to dispute about taste – is, on this view, simply guff.[14]

However – philosophy is full of ‘however’s – perhaps your eye is not so different from mine. That is, perhaps aesthetic disagreement is less extensive than one might think, at least or especially in the case of natural beauty. Do we not tend to agree on the beauty of sunsets, human bodies (some of them), and flowers, not to mention the sublimity of, say, mountains or a raging storm? One way to pursue this idea is to try to naturalise aesthetics. That approach enlists science to try to cut through the tangled questions of aesthetics by revealing the mechanisms governing our reactions to artworks and natural beauty. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889–1951) was a critic of this approach. According to him, ‘Aesthetic questions have nothing to do with psychological experiments, but are answered in an entirely different way.’ His exact reasoning is hard to follow, but this did not stop him calling the naturalistic approach to aesthetics ‘exceedingly stupid’. There is a comparable passage in Adams (about herring sandwiches and artificial intelligence).[15]

There remains the issue, raised by the strange self-plagiarism in the Lallafa case, of authenticity. If an original artwork is better than a fake or a copy, why is that? If a copy of a piece is perfect, i.e. materially identical to the original (at least above the molecular level), how can the original be aesthetically superior to the imitation? ‘A philosopher of art caught without an answer to this question is at least as badly off as a curator of paintings caught taking a Van Meegeren for a Vermeer.’[16] Here is one answer. Originality is part of what determines the quality of an artwork, whereas by definition a replica is not original. Another answer is that the history of a piece can affect its meaning and thereby its value.[17] I leave it to the reader to determine whether these are good answers.[18]

Bibliography (numbers in brackets are dates of original publication)

Adajian, Thomas, ‘The Definition of Art’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Adams, Douglas, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Pan Macmillan, 2001 [1979].

Adams, Douglas, Life, The Universe and Everything, Pan Macmillan, 2001 [1982].

Adams, Douglas, Mostly Harmless, Pan Macmillan, 2001 [1992].

Adams, Douglas, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Pan Macmillan, 2001 [1980].

Adams, Douglas, So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish, Pan Macmillan, 2001 [1984].

Bell, Clive, Art, Capricorn Books, 1958 [1913].

Batteux, Charles, Les Beaux Arts Réduits à un Même Principe (Durand, 1746; accessed via <>).

Broadie, Alexander, ‘Scottish Philosophy in the 18th Century’, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.

Carroll, Noël, Philosophy of Art. A Contemporary Introduction, Routledge, 1999.

Collingwood, R. G., The Principles of Art, Oxford University Press, 1958 [1938].

Goodman, Nelson, ‘Art and Authenticity’, Philosophy Looks at the Arts: Contemporary Readings in Aesthetics, Joseph Margolis (ed.), third edition, Temple University Press, 1987.

Gracyk, Theodore, entry on ‘ontological contextualism’, A Companion to Aesthetics, Stephen Davies, Kathleen Marie Higgins, Robert Hopkins, Robert Stecker and David E. Cooper (eds.), second edition, 2009.

Hepburn, R. W., entry on the ‘sublime’, Ted Honderich (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, second edition, Oxford University Press, 2005.

Janaway, Christopher, entry on ‘aesthetics, Problems of’, Honderich, op. cit.

Joll, Nicholas (ed.), Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Kant, Immanuel, Critique of Judgement, trans. Werner S. Pluhar, Hackett, 1987 [1790].

Plato, Republic, many editions.

Slater, Barry Hartley, ‘Aesthetics’, The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, URL = <>, no date, retrieved 05/05/2014.

Tolstoy, Leo, What is Art?, Funk & Wagnalls [sic!], 1904 [first published in uncensored form 1898].

Warburton, Nigel, Philosophy: The Basics, fourth edition, Routledge, 2004.

Wilde, Oscar, The Picture of Dorian Grey, various editions, with various dates.

Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, Blackwell, 1966.

Wood, Allen W. Kant, Blackwell, 2005.

Nicholas Joll is the editor of Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That collection of essays covers many philosophical areas but not really aesthetics – which is one reason for the present piece.

Image: Don’t Panic towel, 2010, Barbara Abateshare-alike licence.


[1] The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, chapter 7. If you want to know which two forms of poetry are worse than Vogon poetry, then . . you’ll have to read Adams’s book.

[2] My quotations are from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ch. 7.

[3] ‘Questions that would not occur to a Vogon’: I have in mind less the Vogon captain (who does write poetry, albeit so as to throw his ‘mean callous heartless exterior into sharp relief’) and more your average Vogon, such as the Vogon guard of the same chapter (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, ch. 7). That guard is involved in this memorable bit of dialogue: ‘“But hang on’, pursued Ford, there’s music and art and things to tell you about yet! Arrggghhh!’” See also ch. 9 on how the Vogons treat beautiful things, viz., they burn and smash and kill them. On what makes a question philosophical, one may see the Introduction to my Philosophy and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

[4] The Hitchhiker book is Restaurant at the End of the Universe, ch. 19; compare the mirror metaphor in Plato, Republic, book X. The Batteux quotation is from his Les Beaux Arts Réduits à un Même Principe, p. 42, translation from Carroll, Philosophy of Art, p. 22, additions mine.

[5] All Tolstoy, What is Art?, ch. 5, p. 50; italics removed.

[6] Collingwood, Principles of Art, p. 151. As the quotation perhaps suggests, Collingwood believed that art exists more in the mind than physically.

[7] ‘Unity amidst variety’: Broadie, ‘Scottish Philosophy in the 18th Century’, §3. ‘Shapes, regularities, symmetries’ and so forth: Allen Wood, Kant, p. 157. As Wood notes, Kant’s formalism is primarily an account of natural beauty, and only secondarily of artworks. Indeed, as far as artworks are at issue, Kant means his principle to apply only to ‘fine art’ (schöne Kunst). Bell’s phrase ‘combination of lines and colours’ occurs on pp. 19 and 20 of his Art. He mentions rhythm and harmony on p. 30 – but says little about literature; ‘narrative structures and alternative points of view’ owes not to Bell but to Carroll, Philosophy of Art, p. 111. Finally here: Bell contrasted ‘aesthetic emotion’ – the emotion by which, he holds, we recognize ‘significant form’, i.e. art – with other emotions. The contemplator of art ‘inhabit[s] a world with an intense and peculiar significance of its own’ and ‘with emotions of its own’, viz., ‘austere and thrilling raptures’ comparable to the experiences of the mathematician and ‘the rapt philosopher’ (Art, pp. 27–31).

[8] Carroll, Philosophy of Art, p. 23. Batteux held the idea about the voice, though he may have had doubts about the degree to which music imitates. The birdsong idea is widespread.

[9] This paragraph draws upon Adajian, ‘The Definition of Art’, §§3–4. I note that the historical view may have the advantage of recognising a seemingly obvious fact. To wit: over the centuries, the nature of art has changed.

[10] ‘If I were a member of the art world I could, by exhibiting it in a gallery, make my left shoe into a work of art’ (Warburton, Philosophy: The Basics, p. 154).

[11] ‘Brotherhood of man’, ‘the simple feelings of common life’: Tolstoy, What is Art?, ch. 16, p. 164. Ch. 9 therein discusses the feelings that upper-class art expresses. Tolstoy’s religious convictions inform those ideas.‘Art for art’s sake’ is the English version of the French phrase l’art pour l’art. That French phrase was associated with, among others, Benjamin Constant and Théophile Gautier, and owes something to Kant’s idea that the pleasure we get from beauty is ‘disinterested’.

[12] The quotations from Bell are from Art, pp. 29 and 32 respectively.

[13] I quote Janaway, ‘Aesthetics, Problems of’, p. 13. My italics.

[14] There are complications. Aesthetic subjectivism – the thesis that beauty and/or anything else that confers aesthetic value is in us, in the eye of the beholder – can give some meaning to value claims about art. For it can interpret such claims as saying, ‘According to my taste, X is good / better than Y / the worst in the Universe / what have you’. However, so construed, such claims remain guff. Kant helps one to see why. If someone ‘proclaims something to be beautiful, then he requires the same liking from others’; he ‘judges not just for himself but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things’ (Kant, Critique of Judgement, §7, pp. 55–56). Hence subjectivism construes evaluations of art as saying one thing (‘the piece – it itself – is good’) while meaning another (‘I like the piece’). Let me tack on an admission: my subjectivistic reading of the passage from So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish takes that passage somewhat out of context.

[15] ‘Aesthetic questions have nothing to do . .’, ‘exceedingly stupid’: Wittgenstein, Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief, p. 17. The Adams passage: Mostly Harmless, ch. 6. On ‘sublimity’, see the definition provided by Hepburn. I note also that Wittgenstein thought it problematic to try to distinguish between an artwork and its effects (‘Lectures on Aesthetics’, §IV, in his Lectures and Conversations).

[16] Goodman, ‘Art and Authenticity’, p. 261. Van Meegeren forged Vermeers.

[17] Warburton, Philosophy: The Basics, pp. 160–3, considers the first answer. On the second, see Gracyk, ‘ontological contextualism’. An expressivist might offer a third type of answer to the question of replicas . . . On these matters – and more specifically on Duchamp’s versions of the Mona Lisa – one may see also Slater, ‘Aesthetics’, §5.

[18] The essay in its entirety is released under the Creative Commons ‘Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International’ (‘CC BY-NC-ND 4.0’) license. You are free to copy and redistribute the essay, but only if you credit the original author (Nicholas Joll), mention the full license (, leave the material unaltered, and make no commercial use of the material. My quotations from the Hitchhiker books and elsewhere are in the spirit of fair use and intend no copyright infringement.


  1. I see your point, and you are correct- anthropological discussions of such subjects often become an argument over semantics (as with famous debates over marriage cross-culturally), and cultural relativism does run the risk of making almost anything and everything acceptable. I think what I was getting at here though was more that ‘art’ is a pecularly ‘Western’ concept that is not recognised in many other cultures around the world. Our idea of ‘art for art’s sake’ is not recognised in many places, with the meanings and intentions behind images or objects often meaning more that the appearance- it is only to us that the appearance (or aesthetics) becomes of real importance. The anthropologist Alfred Gell wrote an interesting book entitled ‘Art and Agency’ that deals with this idea somewhat, which is an interesting (if somewhat dense) read.

    • That book (Gell, *Art and Agency*) does look interesting! Thanks for telling me about it. Also: yes, it is interesting to think that what is at issue (with your examples) might be less (1) a different view of art and more (2) a getting by without anything that quite fits our (modern, Western) idea of art. (But in that case we would have not so much something culturally relative as a situation wherein one culture invented something that another did not.)

  2. Within anthropology, art is an interesting area of study, with aesthetics being a well-studied part of this. Anthropological works also discuss the cross-cultural issues that arrise with aesthetics, and the way in which in many societies, ‘art’ does not exist as a concept, with images or scultupes produced with the sole intention of acting as a representation or a religious aid, with the only ‘beauty’ coming from the extent to which an object or image fulfills its purpose. For example, malagan statues carved in New Ireland, Papua New Guinea, are created to house the spirit of a god or an ancestor, and are then left to rot in order to release the spirit that inhabits the statue. Once this happens, a new statue is then carved. However, Victorian ethnographers begun to collect these items as artworks due to their perceived ‘beauty’, and place them in museums around the world. This was seen as wrong by the communities that made these figures, and in recent years examples have been returned in order to be disposed of in the correct way and release the cptive spirits. To our ‘Western’ sensibiities, this is difficult to imagine, as it involves the destruction of a piece of artwork, but for the creators, these are simply funtional pieces whose only beauty is in the accuracy with which they render the inhabitant of the statue. There are many more anthropological and ethnographic examples such as this, which show art to be very much a construct of our own society than is needs to be understood from a cultually relativist standpoint. As such, perhaps Vogon poetry is art to the Vogons, and we cannot argue with this! A very thought-provoking article!

    • Thanks for that interesting comment, ‘Puppet’! I will take the liberty of responding to it.

      So: if some person from some culture deems some thing art, and some person from a different culture thinks that the same thing is not art, then both of these people are right? OK; but how is *that* to be understood, more precisely?
      Here is one option. Each of the two people is right *according to their own standard*, i.e. according to their own culture’s concept of art. One of our two imaginary people is saying ‘according to my standard, that is art’ and the other is saying ‘according to my (different!) standard, that is not art’ and both of these people are right. But that seems trivial. For *everyone* can agree with this analysis of the situation, even someone who thinks that one or both of the standards (concepts of art) at issue are *wrong*. See what I mean?

      But seemingly you intend a different, stronger analysis of the situation. You want to say something like: each of the two people is right according to their own standard *and that there can be no arguing about standards*. OK; but *why*? Why can there be no arguing (no fruitful or philosophically respectable arguing, anyway) about standards? You might reply: because each of the parties has only their own standard. But presumably at least sometimes and at least up to a point each party could come to understand the other’s standard, no? And then they could argue about which standard was best. So you will still have to say something more (and indeed I can imagine various possible moves) . .

  3. Author of the piece here. First of all, I’d like to thank everyone for their enthusiastic reactions! Second, I’d like to add that, after the piece appeared on this site, someone (anonymously, on a forum) pointed out the following to me. A Doctor Who episode which Douglas Adams partly wrote – namely the episode bearing the slightly awful title of ‘City of Death’ – deals with the theme of authenticity in art, and very probably inspired the Lallafa plagiarism stuff. The episode as a whole is good fun, but somewhat hard to get hold of.

  4. Hilarious and deep at the same time:) Have retweeted.

  5. My absolute favorite book of all time.

  6. Really very interesting, thank you!

  7. Thanks for raising all of these key questions about the nature of art through the lens of Douglas Adams. This was an interesting read! I used Vogon poetry in my own blog this week to help illustrate a different concept. There must be something in the air. :)

  8. So long, and thanks for all the thoughts.

  9. This post was enjoyably thought-provoking. I’ve reblogged it.

  10. Reblogged this on Maria Vigornia's Journal and commented:
    I enjoyed this post so much I had to share it with my readers. All the questions arising from attempting a definitive answer to “What is art?” are, I suspect, in one way more interesting than what we might decide upon if we ever could agree on an answer to the original question.

  11. I love this. I’m going to come back and read it again later.